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Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Aeroplanes, Lasers & Puffins: My Year at the Royal Commission - Part 2

The view from above is often astonishing and can give an understanding and appreciation of the archaeology of Wales that is often not possible from the ground.  I found it difficult at first to orientate myself and get used to the different scales of places and buildings when seen from the air.  Even familiar landscapes that I have lived in for years and visited regularly on the ground appeared so different from the aerial perspective.  But it wasn’t until my first front seat flight that I realised just how tricky it was to look for archaeology whilst also navigating and taking photographs!  It is a juggling act that takes experience and a cool head, but I was always helped along the way by the expert flying of the pilots such as Bob and Gwyndaf at Welshpool and Haverfordwest Airports.

Looking from above can give an entirely different perspective of the archaeology of Wales. Here, on Harding’s Down, Gower, three Iron Age hillforts are sited within a stone’s throw from each other – a view that is difficult to appreciate from the ground.

We fly throughout the year. The low light of winter and spring is ideal for picking out the earthworks of ancients forts and fields, but it was the cropmark months of the summer that I found the most thrilling when we could discover tens of new sites in a single flight. Cropmarks form in ripening wheat and barley when buried archaeological features, such as walls or ditches, stunt or promote the growth of the plants during hot, dry weather. These can leave fantastic shapes on the ground that show the outlines of long-lost forts and buildings.  I still remember the exhilaration the first time I saw one and realised that I had discovered new evidence of the ancient occupation of Wales.

My first cropmark – a new discovery of a small Iron Age defended enclosure in Ceredigion.
What has been great about my time at the Royal Commission is that I’ve been given the opportunity to gain experience of so many different areas of work.  One of the highlights has been undertaking fieldwork on Skomer Island, Pembrokeshire.  Famed for its puffins and other seabirds, the island is also home to one of the best preserved prehistoric farming landscapes anywhere in the British Isles.  I feel really privileged to have been part of a team undertaking a new ground survey of the surviving remains, working in one of the most beautiful landscapes of Wales, with some of the most dedicated and enthusiastic archaeologists the country has to offer.

The puffins of Skomer Island, perhaps curious about our new survey of the archaeological remains.
And that is what sums up my year at the Royal Commission: when your office is the front seat of an aeroplane or amongst the puffins on a remote island you know you’re in a good spot!
Oliver Davis won a year’s bursary supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Institute for Archaeologists to train in aerial archaeology with the Royal Commission.  A sumptuous new Royal Commission book by Toby Driver and Oliver Davis “Historic Wales from the Air – Images from the National Monuments Record of Wales” celebrating aerial photography in Wales is due in April 2012.

Oliver Davis, Royal Commission, March 2012.

View Part 1
<< Aeroplanes, Lasers & Puffins: My Year at the Royal Commission - Part 1

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